Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Attempted Assassinations of the Italian Insurrectionists

                  Charles Augustus Howell may have claimed to have been an associate of Felice Orsini and may have said he was implicated in the assassination attempt on Napoleon III, but he was, as we have already seen, a notorious spinner of stories. Personally, I doubt his word and think it was just another tale to boost his reputation as an adventurer. I say this because Felice Orsini wrote a detailed memoir and Howell is only mentioned once, and that is in a list of sympathisers Orsini met during his visit to England. If he had been involved in the so-called Orsini Affair, I’m sure Orsini would have mentioned it.

Felice Orsini

Felice Orsini was born in 1819 and his family hoped he would join the priesthood, but he rebelled against the church and became involved in the campaign for a unified Italian state, La Giovane Italia (Young Italy), a secret society founded by Guiseppe Mazzini. In 1844, Orsini was captured, with his father, and condemned to life imprisonment but was freed by the new pope, Pius IX. He fought, with distinction, in the First Italian War of Independence, and Mazzini sent him on a secret mission to Hungary where, in 1854, he was again arrested and imprisoned at Mantua. 

The Castle at Mantua

With aid from the outside, Orsini attempted several escapes, sometimes in ludicrous circumstances – he tried drugging his guards with opium but didn’t have enough of the drug for all of them and some were left thinking their colleagues were simply drunk, then tried again with smuggled morphine but again hadn’t enough for the guards and the turnkeys. Eventually he used a smuggled saw to saw through the bars and climbed down the 100-foot castle walls using a rope made from bedsheets, before disappearing disguised as a peasant. 

An Orsini bomb

In 1856, he visited London where, with the aid of sympathisers, he procured six bombs made to his own design. These were smuggled to Paris, where Orsini rendezvoused with Giuseppe Pieri, Antonio Gomez and Carlo di Rudio, his fellow conspirators. They devised a plan to assassinate Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), believing that this was the best chance of achieving a unified Italy, as a popular uprising, first in France and then spreading to Italy would follow. 

Napoleon III

On the evening of January 14th 1858, Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugénie, were travelling to the Opéra Le Peletier to see Rossini’s William Tell, when Orsini and his companions attacked their coach. The bombs contained mercury fulminate, the same explosive used in percussion caps, which explodes on impact (rather than needing a fuse), but the over-enthusiastic Orsini had packed them too tight to be fully efficient. Gomez threw the first bomb but it went wide and landed in a group of horsemen escorting the Emperor. 

Throwing the Bombs

The second was nearer, causing damage and destruction, and Orsini himself threw the third, which blew up near a policeman rushing to the Emperor’s assistance. In all, 156 people were injured, with three blinded, and eight people died from their wounds later but the Emperor was uninjured barring a few scratches from flying glass and, in a masterful propaganda move, he continued on to the Opera. Orsini was injured by a shrapnel fragment to the temple, received first aid at the site, and returned to his lodgings, where he was arrested the next day. 

Throwing the Bombs

Following their trial, Orsini and Pieri were sentenced to death and on March 13th 1858, Orsini went calmly and with dignity to the guillotine. Di Rudio was also sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour, the same fate as Gomez’s, on the infamous Devil’s Island. He managed to escape from the island and made his way via British Guiana to London, where he was welcomed and went on the lecture circuit, before emigrating to America in 1860. 

Charles DeRudio

He anglicised his name to Charles DeRudio and joined the US Army, and fought in the American Civil War, before transferring to the 7th Cavalry, where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant. On June 25th 1876, he was part of Company A that crossed the Little Bighorn River under the command of Major M Reno. When Reno attacked the village of the Hunkpapa and Oglala Lokata Sioux, Company A dismounted and formed a skirmish line, covering Reno’s retreat from the attack when overwhelming reinforcements from the tribes threatened to over-run them. DeRudio lost his horse and became separated, hiding in timber undergrowth with a trooper, Private O’Neill, from where they witnessed Lakota women mutilate the bodies of the fallen cavalrymen. The two made their way, with great peril and dangerous encounters, back to Reno Hill where they were again engaged in battle with the Indians. 

Custer's Last Stand

In total, 52% of the 7th Cavalry were killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, including General George Armstrong Custer who fell at the eponymous Custer’s Last Stand. DeRudio remained in the army and attained the rank of Major, before retiring in 1896. He died in 1910, aged 78. 

If that life story doesn’t deserve to be made into a film, then nobody’s does.

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